I have tried different ways to travel long distances in Japan, and I am going to explain pros and cons you face with each option. I’ve tried night buses, the shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train), the normal train, and hitch hiking!
Let’s start with night buses, as that was my principal way of transport. First that’s nearly the cheapest way I know for long distance trips. Not only because the ticket price is really low if you compare it to the distance or price of other ones, but also because it allows you to sleep on board and to save a hostel night. Plus, you don’t lose time traveling during the daytime. Usually, these buses are not crowded at all, and every company has seats that you can lower if you’re sleepy. For sure it’s not the most comfortable way to spend your night, but it’s not that bad, and I spent many nights in night buses, sleeping like a baby.
Usually, the bus company provides you a blanket, a pillow, and slippers, you even get access to a pretty good wifi connection, and during the travel time there are also regular stops for people who want to eat something, or simply to stretch their legs, but also for bus drivers who need to be replaced every couple of hours. It’s kind of a slow way of transport but as I said, if you are sleepy, it won’t matter that much and time will fly.
And then comes the Shinkansen! The fastest train in the world! Its usual speed is 300 km per hour, which is about 190 mp/h. The prototype has actually reached the incredible speed of 600 km/h but don’t worry, it is not supposed to go that fast if people are in it!
Very modern and comfortable, you even have smoking areas in it, not connected to the rest of the train. Nonsmokers will also find it very good and effective. It is a really good way to travel if you are hoping to travel quickly and want to see many different things during your trip. If you are taking just a one way trip at the last minute, it can be really expensive but if you choose to take the one, two or three-week pass it can be really affordable.
The Japan Rail Pass allows you to take every shinkansen, train, subway, ferry boat, and bus run by the national company. And there are lots of them. You will be able to travel all around Japan, and even inside the city, which is a really good way to save a bit of money as well. The only thing is that you usually won’t really be able to see much in the way of small towns and lost places.
Let’s now speak about the normal train. For me that was the average way to travel – it’s not cheap, not that expensive. It is actually pretty fast but if you travel a long distance, you will have to change your train from time to time. That should not be a big issue for you to travel. Road signs are most of the time in two languages (in Japanese and in English). It is possible, though, to end up in a station where no-one speaks English and where there is no English translation of road signs, but that’s part of the adventure as well! In Japan, you will have the pleasure to enjoy many different and unique types of scenery.
I had a great surprise once. I did lose myself navigating from train to train and ended up in a famous small city dedicated to the creator of many different famous mangas, spending my day differently from what I expected but it was truly memorable.
And last but not least, hitch hiking. I have not tried it many times, but I guess if I had more time, I would have traveled like that as much as possible. This way will not suit everyone because you can’t plan everything beforehand. If there are many different places you are planning to visit and you do not have much time to do so, this probably won’t be the best option. But if you have a few real objectives, and that you do not mind about how long it will take you, this will be the best way to meet people and share experiences.
The first person that picked me up was a farmer that was supposed to go to the next city. He actually ended up spending the afternoon with me and brought me everywhere I wanted to go. The first place I wanted to go to was Shiretoko, the bear’s park. I had planned for two or three days to visit it. I reached it in the first afternoon and I saw most of the places I wanted to visit, and even hidden spots, thanks to this guy.
I spent the remaining time visiting other places he told me about or people were telling me about. I discovered unclassified wonderful places. Lots of very good surprises, but I had some frights as well! For example, when you just find out (thanks to the road sign) that the road you have been walking on for an hour is one that bears could cross at any time!
In conclusion, I would say that everything depends on the means, time and goals you have in Japan. All of the methods transport I’ve mentioned have very good, attractive points that I enjoyed a lot. And if you are not that comfort dependent and you don’t really have a tight schedule, you will probably discover places and people that you won’t expect. I hope it will make you enjoy your trip in a different way and in a much more memorable way.
I don’t know how transport works in your country, but at least here in Japan, you will be on time! In three months, I haven’t seen any buses, trains, ferries that were late! You won’t have to wait very long for your connections between buses and ferries or trains. Comfort and modernity of the means of transport as shinkansen, trains, ferry boats, subways and even night buses make you trip much easier than in other countries.